x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Kuwaiti charities face cash controls

Government supervision of charitable organisations may be tightened to include a ban on collecting money during Ramadan.

Workers remove a charity collection booth in Kuwait City in a photo taken in 2005.
Workers remove a charity collection booth in Kuwait City in a photo taken in 2005.

KUWAIT CITY // Charities should be prevented from collecting cash donations during Ramadan according to a recommendation from a government official which comes amid US fears that some Islamic charities in Kuwait fund terrorist groups. Nasser al Ammar, the director of the government's charity and donation organisations department, said he will suggest the ban to the minister of social affairs and labour this week. The proposal comes just days after Sheikh Mohammed Sabah al Salem al Sabah, Kuwait's deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, reassured Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, that local charities are under effective state supervision. The two men met at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Charities in Kuwait have been tightly monitored by the government since Washington put pressure on countries worldwide to trace potential funds for terrorist organisations in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Mr al Ammar said cash collections were stopped when the charity and donation organisations department opened in 2002, but the rules were relaxed during Ramadan a couple of years later. Normally, Kuwaitis who want to donate money must do so by transferring funds from their bank after filling in an official form. During Ramadan, about 10 registered Kuwaiti charities can collect cash at around 150 places throughout the country in return for an official receipt.

Mr al Ammar said some charities have been issuing their own receipts while others have not been providing receipts at all. He also said there have been "one or two" cases of men coming from Asia to collect money from charities outside the official channels. "My receipts ... have a government logo, my name, the ministry's name and a serial number," Mr al Ammar said. "If I give 1,000 receipts, they have to give the copies back to me and I will see how much they have collected. But if they use other receipts, this is not good."

Mohammed al Afasi, the minister of social affairs and labour, is responsible for regulating Kuwaiti charities inside the country. He threatened to freeze the accounts and revoke the licences of the unnamed organisations accused of violating the rules, local press reported this week. Kuwaiti charities collected around 65 million dinars (Dh833m) in 2007, Mr al Ammar said. He did not know how much of that was taken in during Ramadan.

Ibrahim Hassaballa, the director of the International Islamic Charitable Organisation (IICO), a Kuwaiti charity founded by emiri decree in 1986, said the problem of collecting cash in Ramadan is exaggerated. "There are a lot of guidelines," he said. "I think the problem is from new organisations that have no knowledge or experience of the work." The IICO raised around US$20m (Dh73.5m) in 2008. Mr Hassaballa said when people are asked for money at mosques, sometimes they do not wait to arrange a bank transfer; they dig into their pockets and "force you to take the cash".

"In Kuwait, there are good people who give donations and most know where it is going. Most is designated for building mosques, schools and clinics," he said. "I don't think the existing organisations have relationships with groups like al Qa'eda, maybe individuals do. There were accusations, but I don't think they were proved." In June last year, the US department of the treasury accused all offices of the Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS) of "providing financial and material support to al Qa'eda and al Qa'eda affiliates". The treasury's press release said the RIHS branches in Afghanistan and Pakistan had already been designated as funding terrorism by the US government and the UN in 2002.

Tareq al Essa, the society's chairman, strongly denied the allegations, saying they are baseless. While he did not answer questions about how much the charity raises, many Kuwaitis believe RHIS, which is mostly run by Salafis, is one of the largest charities in the country. "Wherever there are massacres, floods, earthquakes, we arrange with the government to help people," Mr al Essa said. "We don't go to Pakistan because it's not safe, it's a mess, so we work through the embassy. Our money all goes through the embassies."

The society produces booklets containing newspaper stories and quotes from Kuwaiti government officials and politicians supporting the RIHS. One booklet carries a 2001 press release by the society which condemns terrorism and calls the September 11 attacks "an act of evil". But Shamlan al Essa, a political scientist at Kuwait University, said he believed Washington's accusations were true. "They refuse to reveal their budget," he said. "The US is right to raise questions about this."

He said RIHS has members in the national assembly and in exchange for their support, the government tolerates their activities. "They have never been banned in Kuwait," he said. The activities of Kuwaiti charities outside the country fall under the jurisdiction of the ministry of foreign affairs and Sheikh Mohammed, the minister for foreign affairs, discussed charities with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on Sunday at the UN.

"The best way to communicate with poor communities and make them immune from the abuse of terrorist organisations is by allowing the philanthropic societies to return," Sheikh Mohammed said after the meeting. "Fighting these charitable societies and capping their activities will create a vacuum that can be filled by terrorist groups." jcalderwood@thenational.ae